Disney’s version of Into the Woods is utterly clueless and boring, an adaptation that renders something that was totally fun into something totally dreary.
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 Broadway hit was a slightly sick, plucky wink at the audience, an almost mocking look at the dark side of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As captured in the 1991 American Playhouse broadcast starring Bernadette Peters, it was a 150-minute romp with an adult sense of humor. It was hardly the stuff of Disney.
Director Rob Marshall has cut his film version to just over two hours, yet it feels twice as long. On stage, the music of Into the Woods was perky, tightly choreographed, consistently funny and almost frantic.
In the movie, most of the songs just fart along. The singers search for the emotive, warm, soulful qualities in Sondheim and Lapine’s musical. The problem with that is the original musical didn’t really emphasize those qualities. It was more of an intelligent, operatic goof, not a feel-good musical.
This is just another Princess movie, void of humor and clumsily staged. Marshall shoots most of the film on a soundstage, and while that’s admirable as far as catching live music, it has a bland, monotonous look to it.
The story puts a humorous spin on characters such as Red Riding Hood (Lila Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy).
Most of the film’s plot centers on the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt), cursed into a childless marriage by the Witch (Meryl Streep) after somebody messed with her garden. While Corden and Blunt sing well, their work is missing something. Only Streep manages to capture that strange Sondheim whimsy. She is far and away the best thing about the movie.
Streep takes her musical moments, like “Witch’s Entrance,” and rises above the production. “Witch’s Entrance” happens early in the film, and at a point when things are slightly promising. That promise gets dashed on the rocks in moments like Crawford’s dreadful, wrongfully earnest rendition of “I Know Things Now,” Red Riding Hood’s post-wolf encounter recollection. Sondheim’s wit is totally lost on Crawford and Marshall.
Johnny Depp shows up for a few minutes as The Wolf in a stupid outfit that makes him look more feline than canine. His “Hello, Little Girl,” a song that is supposed to be rife with innuendo, sounds more like an animal who just wants to eat some food. Marshall and Depp give the number a slow, crooning presentation, taking away its former jaunty, obnoxious edge. It’s just wrong.
Blunt, Corden and Kendrick deliver their numbers as if they were in The Sound of Music rather than a clever fairy tale parody. Tracey Ullman changes Jack’s Mother from a snarky bit of comic relief into a disgruntled, cranky mum. Huttlestone, who was awesome in the latest Les Miserables movie, does nothing memorable with Jack.
Understandably, Marshall has completely deleted the character of The Narrator from the proceedings. The Narrator acted as a ringmaster in the stage show, and simply couldn’t transition into the movie as a physical presence. Instead, Marshall has Corden’s Baker character provide a typical voiceover that lends nothing in the ways of fun.
The final act involving the Giant’s Wife terrorizing the countryside falls flat due to terrible special effects. Perhaps Into the Woods is a stage musical that has no business being adapted to the big screen.
Still, in those few moments where Streep soars, I can’t help but think a director with a more twisted vision, and a studio with a little more balls, could’ve given us something more suitable to Sondheim and Lapine (who, oddly enough, participated in the film’s production).
Dreamworks and Tim Burton did a masterful job with their very R-rated Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Disney should’ve taken a few cues from them, and allowed Into the Woods to retain its sense of mischief rather than neutering it.